The very long New York Times piece on climate change politics in the 1980s by Nathaniel Rich has attracted a lot of critical commentary—justifiably. To say that the failure to achieve a political response was due to human nature, a genetic defect that prevents our species from planning ahead, is just lazy and wrong. Were the scientists, environmentalists and other activists that did want to take action a bunch of mutants? Haven’t humans acted with foresight (and also failed to act) since time immemorial? “Human nature” explains everything and nothing; it’s what you invoke when you don’t want to do the digging a real explanation would require.
I wish the left had a solid response to this immobilizing mushiness, but instead it mostly offers its own version of counter-mush. A case in point is Naomi Klein. I’ve already written at length about her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, but I don’t want to let her latest piece at The Intercept pass without notice.
Klein rightly excoriates Rich, but then goes on to make this argument:
Capitalism, not human nature, is responsible for climate inaction.
Capitalism is an ideology that worships profit and “endless growth”.
Its purest form is neoliberalism.
The late 1980s was the high water mark of neoliberalism, so climate activism was suppressed.
We must reject capitalism by adopting the earth-centered philosophy of indigenous peoples.
Politically, this means embracing a caring economy of green jobs, meeting human needs and rejecting “extractivism”.
If this were just Klein’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint we could shrug and move on, but since it reflects what may be the main current in left thinking about the climate crisis, it matters that it turns what ought to be well focused and clear into a thick, gummy soup.
No, capitalism is not an ideology. What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital. Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital. There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy. (One way we can tell that existing policies are largely toothless is that their enactment had imperceptible effects on asset prices.)
Yes, the 1980s was the zenith of the modern neoliberal project, but there are currents within neoliberalism that support climate action. One doesn’t have to be a fan of this school of thought to recognize that it’s not monolithic on environmental matters—or on racism, criminal justice, public health and other questions.
Countering a climate disaster is not about changing one’s philosophy of economic growth or living a more natural lifestyle; it’s about keeping carbon in the ground. I’m all for shifting production to more socially beneficial purposes, but that’s not what will prevent temperatures from rising far into the red zone over the decades to come. The problem is too much carbon in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels, so the solution is to collectively limit them. That means either setting up a permit system, with a tight cap on how many permits can be issued, or taxing fossil fuels into unaffordability. The main reason governments haven’t taken this path is business opposition, and not just from fossil fuel corporations. What motivates Team Capital is not a shared philosophy, but the belief, probably justified, that really effective action would eat into the value of their investments. Fighting climate action is as rational for them as cutting an unnecessary production cost or cultivating a new, profitable market.
If you look at it this way, the left has a crucial role to play in climate politics, to clearly spell out the difference between the rationality of capital and the rationality of the human race. Everything else—the fixation on degrowth, the claim that action on climate requires concomitant revolutions in cosmology and lifestyle—is a distraction. Which is not to say that delving into consciousness and how to live a good life are unimportant, of course, just that, on this particular issue, what the left should be offering is clarity. It’s as if you had a plumbing problem in your house, called up a progressive plumbing service, and were told that the real problem is your failure to envision the hydrological cycle in its global fullness and reorient your use of all natural resources. Yes but no.
To turn Klein’s thesis around, the tragedy is that our awareness of an impending climate catastrophe arose just at the time that the left had entered a state of maximum confusion and diffusion. It’s not too late to change this.